YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, facing outrage over violence that has forced about 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, canceled a trip to the upcoming U.N. General Assembly because of the crisis, her office said on Wednesday.
The exodus of refugees, sparked by the security forces’ fierce response to a series of Rohingya militant attacks, is the most pressing problem Suu Kyi has faced since becoming leader last year.
Critics have called for her to be stripped of her Nobel peace prize for failing to do more to halt the strife which the U.N. rights agency said was a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Aid agencies will have to step up operations “massively” in response to the refugee flow to Bangladesh, a senior U.N. official said, adding that the $77 million the United Nations had appealed for last week would not be enough.
But a Bangladeshi border force officer said the number of people crossing into his area had fallen sharply, apparently because everyone had left the districts worst hit by violence.
Suu Kyi, in her first address to the U.N. General Assembly as leader in September last year, defended her government’s efforts to resolve the crisis over treatment of the Muslim minority.
This year, she canceled her trip to New York because of the security threats posed by the insurgents and the need to restore stability, Zaw Htay, spokesman for Suu Kyi’s office, told a media briefing.
“She is concentrating on establishing stability,” the spokesman said, adding that preventing any spread of communal violence was a priority and Suu Kyi would address the nation on reconciliation and peace next Tuesday.
International pressure has been growing on Buddhist-majority Myanmar to end the violence in the western state of Rakhine that began on Aug. 25 when Rohingya militants attacked 30 police posts and an army camp.
The raids triggered a sweeping military counter-offensive against the insurgents, whom the government labels terrorists. Refugees say the offensive is aimed at pushing Rohingya out of Myanmar.
Numerous Rohingya villages in the north of Rakhine state have been torched but authorities have denied that security forces or Buddhist civilians have been setting the fires. Instead, they blame the insurgents.
In the latest violence reported by the government, the insurgents attacked and burned three police posts in the north of Rakhine on Tuesday. There were no reports of casualties.
The Trump administration has called for protection of civilians, and Bangladesh says all the refugees will have to go home and has called for safe zones in Myanmar. Zaw Htay said safe zones were not acceptable.
China, which competes with the United States for influence in Asia, said on Tuesday it backed Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard “development and stability”.
The U.N. Security Council is to meet on Wednesday behind closed doors for the second time since the crisis erupted. British U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said he hoped there would be a public statement agreed by the council.
Myanmar’s military, which ruled for almost 50 years until it began a transition to democracy in 2011, retains significant political powers and has full control of security.
Nevertheless, critics say Suu Kyi could speak out against the violence and demand respect for the rule of law.
But anti-Rohingya sentiment is common in Myanmar, where Buddhist nationalism has surged since the end of military rule.
Suu Kyi, whom the military blocked from becoming president and who says Myanmar is at the beginning of the road to democracy, could risk being denounced as unpatriotic if she were seen to be criticizing a military operation that enjoys widespread support.
A mob in central Myanmar threw stones at Muslim shops on Sunday but there have been no serious outbreaks elsewhere.
Zaw Htay said the government had information about plots to launch attacks, although he did not elaborate, except to say security was being tightened in cities.
Those fears will be compounded by an al Qaeda call to arms in support of the Rohingya.
“The savage treatment meted out to our Muslim brothers … shall not pass without punishment,” al Qaeda said in a statement, the SITE monitoring group said.
Bangladesh was already home to about 400,000 Rohingya who fled earlier conflict and many of the new refugees, hungry and sick, are without shelter or clean water.
“We will all have to ramp up our response massively, from food to shelter,” George William Okoth-Obbo, assistant high commissioner for operations at the U.N. refugee agency, told Reuters during a visit to the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh.
He declined to say how many people he thought might come but Bangladeshi officer Lieutenant Colonel Ariful Islam said numbers were falling off sharply in his area.
“The people who arrived in the early days after the atrocities, now they’ve come out,” Islam told Reuters.
Additonal reporting by Krishna D. Das and Simon lewis in Bangldesh, Kanupriya Kapoor in JAKARTA; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Clarence Fernandez